- by Bryan Reesman
in Sound Design
Tony Meola put hats on the musicians and foley effects on stage for the current Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Charles Dickens never got the chance to bring the world the full story of Edwin Drood as he died before completing it. Through the years it has provided fertile ground for other artists to finish—whether humorously or in earnest. More than 100 years after its original publication, in the mid-1980s, composer/lyricist Rupert Holmes decided to fashion a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential musical (The Mystery Of Edwin Drood) about the story that takes place in London’s Music Hall Royale in 1895. The conceit of Holmes’ musical is its acknowledgement that a show is being put on for the audience—there is a chairman leading us through everything, and the actors even come out in costume prior to the show to get theatregoers warmed up—before setting about performing a bawdy murder mystery that gets interrupted during the second act when the cast runs out of words, comically mimicking the moment Dickens passed on. From that point on, the audience must vote on who they think the murderer is, as well as a mysterious detective character, and pick a couple to fall in love. Then the action resumes. Further, everyone plays a double role—as their character and the actor playing their character—while Edwin Drood is played by a woman; in this case, Stephanie J. Block. It’s jolly good fun that makes for an evening of light entertainment.
Veteran sound designer Tony Meola worked on the current revival of the musical playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 in New York City through March. He actually worked on the original 1985 Broadway production, and he was lucky enough to jump onboard for its first Broadway revival since then.
Stage Directions: Studio 54 is a great venue to put on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. How does it work sonically?
Tony Meola: It’s good, and I love the house crew there too. They’re so fabulous, and I like the space. They altered it because it was a television studio, and when they restored it to a theatre they didn’t exactly restore it back to what it was because I think the television studio filled in the pit with concrete or did some real big structural stuff. That’s why the rear of the orchestra is raised. The actual stage level is the floor of the front of the orchestra. The stage is actually built up.
Since there’s no pit, you have musicians in the boxes on each side.
Did you see how I miked them? They’re in their hats, all the woodwinds and strings. I love to mic strings with a hat, and Mary Whitaker, who’s one of our violinists, was the very first violinist I ever put in a hat, on violin at Playwrights Horizons in the ‘90s. What’s so funny is on this show the first thing I said to costume designer William Ivey Long was, “Are you going to put the orchestra in hats?” It really works for doublers because the mic is always right there—doublers like flute, Piccolo flute, clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophone.
So there are no mics on any of the instruments?
No. Technically the brass have mics on their stands or in front of them, but that’s just to get a better sound. But everyone else has them in their hats including the drummer.
How many musicians are there total in both boxes?
Sixteen. Keyboard 2 is in the basement because it made the house right pit so cramped, especially because Rupert has everyone doubling on five instruments in woodwinds. It’s tough because if you listen to the orchestration, they’re really heavy. Everybody’s playing all the time, and the lyrics are really fast. They’re eighth notes all the time.
Audio-wise, Edwin Drood is mostly music, although you have the nighttime sequence in the graveyard with heavy reverb on the sound effects to create a Gothic horror feeling.
We were very heavy-handed there, but those foley sound effects were our ideas. My assistant, Adair Mallory, and I wanted to do the whole thing with foley—we wanted to do the thunder with a thunder sheet and stuff—but Scott Ellis, the director, would only go so far. I have to say, the balloon for the creak of the crypt door and the footstep thing get a huge laugh every night. It’s more than just that old gag of one extra step.
You’re dealing with a theatre show that has a classic look with backdrops and set pieces, but you are aware of the artifice with the actors wearing colorful costumes and hamming it up. How far do you push things before they get too silly, such as in the graveyard?
There’s always that line in this show about how far do you go, but you have that with a lot of shows. Also, the script says “recorded sound effect,” but it takes place in a Victorian music hall. They didn’t have recorded sound effects.
What was the biggest challenge for you on Drood?
Words. They come fast, and all of their accents. Most of the actors have two accents—the accent they do as their actor role in the music hall, and the accent that they do as their character. I finally played out loud for somebody the opening of Act II of Wicked, and I asked, “Which company is this?” They said, “Broadway?” I told them “No, London. Brits and Americans sound the same when they sing.” Because they were doing all of their accents in group numbers, and it was really hard to understand the lyrics. It’s true. As Americans, we don’t sing our "R"s like we speak them, we soften them.
Whenever you mic actors’ hats, there is always the concern about hearing ruffling when they’re rubbing up against something or the quandary of a microphone going out. What kind of considerations do you have when you’re doing that with musicians?
They learn pretty quickly what they can and can’t do. One of the problems we had on this show was before we got around to programming mutes, the cast was complaining that they heard the orchestra talking. They would be in a book scene, and two members of the orchestra would be whispering to each other, and with their microphones so close they would hear them onstage. The actors also heard the musicians because the foldback levels on stage were so loud, but we brought that down. The musicians had to learn to be quiet, but we also programmed the mutes between tunes.
What concerns did you have about bleedthrough between the actors?
You do anytime anybody is close to each other, but we do it one mic at a time. The mixer always figures out, when people are singing a duet, what works better; because once you get so close, it doesn’t matter which mic is on. Whoever is louder gets heard more. I have one of the best mixers in the world, Josh Mazel. He did Lysistrata Jones, Wicked and Vanities for me. And when I said the lyrics are tough, I think that’s the nature of the show, because of the accents and because the lyrics come at you really fast. In the opening number, when you have words like “distingué and debonair you are,” who’s going to pick out that French word for distinguished? You’re not going to get it, especially in the first number of the show. The opening number truly follows an unwritten law of musical theatre, that nothing important happens in the first five minutes in the words. The only thing that we establish in our show is that there’s a bunch of actors who are in a music hall, and we do that by having them in the house prior to the start, then they sing this number, “There You Are.” But what does it mean? There you are, and here we are. How distingué and debonair you are. Just west of Leicester Square you are.
What mics are you using on the musicians and the actors?
The actors are Countryman B6s. The musicians are all different. They are mostly Sennheiser ME104s, which are the cardioid lavalier mics. They sound great. I love those microphones. The console is a DiGiCo SD7T.
So why the Countryman?
I love Countryman microphones because they sound good and reject sweat really well. I use them because of their rejection of moisture. Scott Lehrer used it in “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” in South Pacific.
You worked on the show during its original Broadway run in 1985.
I was Tom Morse’s assistant, and I barely remember it. When I was asked to do this, I didn’t remember it as being so much fun. I’ve had such a good time with this show, and I really love it.